An attempted assault on open government

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

Something very troubling happened in the Republicanled Joint Finance Committee last week for which the public needs more answers than have been offered. The Republican majority passed a series of sweeping provisions that would be a severe setback for open and transparent government.

As part of a larger budget bill, the JFC voted to keep the drafting files for legislation secret and give legislators the legal privilege to refuse to divulge any communication that occurred during their term and to prohibit their employees from doing the same. In short, the measures passed by the JFC allow elected politicians to keep the vast majority of their communications and records secret from the citizens they serve.

The opposition to this attack on open government was swift, fierce and came from all sides of the political spectrum. Conservative Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel blasted the move, saying “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records move Wisconsin in the wrong direction.”

Liberal state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said “Creating exemptions in open records laws in the dark of the night is the biggest mistake Republicans could ever make.” Erpenbach may be underestimating the Republicans’ ability to make mistakes, but he and Schimel are absolutely correct. Open and transparent government is a necessary and fundamental component of a Republican form of government. Citizens are robbed of their ability to make intelligent and informed decisions about their representatives if they are purposefully rendered ignorant of those representatives’ actions.

In the face of such withering dissent from all sides, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican leaders of the Legislature have relented. Although the provisions restricting open government are still part of the budget bill the JFC passed, the Republicans have pledged to remove those provisions from the budget altogether.

In a statement by Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Joint Finance Committee Co-Chairpersons Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren, they said, “The intended policy goal of these changes was to provide a reasonable solution to protect constituents’ privacy and to encourage a deliberative process between elected officials and their staff in developing policy. It was never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way.”

First, their statement is, on its face, unbelievable. The documents that the bill would have hidden from public view were mostly those between legislators, their staffs, lobbyists and others involved in the legislative process. Relatively few actual constituents are involved enough in that process to require such drastic measures to protect their privacy. And the claim that it was “never intended to inhibit transparent government in any way” is just plain false. There can be no other result of such laws other than to inhibit transparent government.

Second, even though Walker and the Republicans have reversed course on restricting open government, that is not good enough. The Republicans are not admitting who put the open government restrictions in the budget bill or what the real purpose was. They are also not being forthright on whether Walker knew of or supported the restrictions before they were made public. Generally speaking, the Republican leaders of the Legislature would not put anything in the budget without the governor’s approval, but the Republicans have been very disjointed with Walker on the presidential campaign trail.

What we do know is that the 12 Republican members of the Joint Finance Committee voted to severely restrict open government and shield politicians from public scrutiny. The people deserve to know the truth about the creation and purpose of those restrictions so that they can hold their representatives accountable for their actions.

Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident. Reach him .